Question: Here's one that goes way back: I'd like to know why 77 Sunset Strip was canceled. Was it because Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was tired of it, or because of low ratings? I used to love that show. Thank you for answering this. Shawn R., Albuquerque, N.M.
Televisionary: Thank you for asking it, Shawn. And, as they say all too often out here on the Left Coast, no worries I'm all about the way back.
To answer the question, ending the show when Zimbalist was tired of it would've meant a much shorter run since he made no secret of wanting out as early as two years into the series, which debuted on ABC in October 1958. Told in 1960 that the entire series would fall apart without him playing L.A. private eye Stuart Bailey, the actor had a most un-starlike reaction. "That," he said in an April TV Guide interview, "is the most depressing thing I have ever heard."
A little more than two years later, he was even more frank and, to a hilarious degree, even more vicious, admitting that at that point he didn't even study his lines anymore. "I just skim over them before each scene," he said. "The dialogue and the character don't change; just the locations." Furthermore, he added, it was a tribute to those behind the scenes that viewers were able to watch 77 "without losing their dinners."
By this time, Zimbalist was no longer carrying the burden of the show alone. Roger Smith, who played fellow gumshoe Jeff Spencer, had earned himself a following. Edd Byrnes had built up a huge fan base as parking-lot attendant "Kookie" Kookson, who taught America his oddball hipster language "the long and air" meant flying in a plane, "mushroom people" were those who partied at night, "a Washington" was a dollar bill, "antsville" was a place filled with people, "lid of your cave" meant the door to your office etc. and who made the 10-cent comb a popular fashion accessory long before the Fonz. And when Kookie was made a partner in the agency, Robert Logan as J.R. Hale, his youthful parking-lot replacement, brought in an even younger fan base.
All of which, to hear Zimbalist tell it, merely meant the blame for his hellish job could be spread around. "To those I know, as well as to myself, the show is utter boredom," he said grimly. "It stopped being interesting years ago. I think it holds on because it has feminine appeal. We have characters for every lady. For instance, our new parking-lot boy Robert Logan has all the teenage girls crazy about him. Kookie Byrnes, who has graduated from the teenagers, now is making inroads among the stenographers and young married set. Roger Smith, my partner, appeals to women a little more mature. And I guess that leaves me to the grandmothers, derelicts and nonwalking patients."
Ouch, huh? Smith had a tough time taking his job seriously, too. "We have done so many scenes together and have said the same things so repeatedly that it's now hard for the two of us to look at each other during what passes for a serious scene and not start laughing," he said. "It has gotten so bad at times that when the camera has been focused on me, Efrem has been asked to leave the stage. He crosses his eyes while I am delivering lines and breaks me up."
What's even more surprising than stars speaking so candidly though this was before the days of the P.R. machine that is today's network TV is that producer Howie Horwitz seemed to take such cynicism in stride. "Zim is a polite, charming, cultured, wonderful-natured gentleman," he said. "He merely voices the beef of most actors about TV. They feel they are using up all their exposure on television. To some extent they are, but at the same time the exposure on TV has made them stars. Who really knew of Zimbalist until 77?"
Another, unnamed Hollywood producer put it more bluntly. "Zimbalist is a decent actor, but he hardly figures to make the world forget Barrymore," he said. "He should be happy he's working steadily."
Told of the comments, Zimbalist wearily countered: "I have no serious gripe against Sunset Strip," he said. "It's been good to me. But now it becomes a question of which will live longer the show or me. I'm hoping to outlast it, but I'm not confident."
He should've been. Zimbalist did outlast 77 (its last original episode aired in February 1964). Dwindling audiences did what his derision could not, killing the series with low ratings, and he went on to another formulaic hit, The FBI, from 1965-74.